The term "Cantonese" derives from the name given by Westerners to the capital of the province Guangdong, "Canton". Cantonese usually refers to the people, dialect or cuisine of Canton. The Chinese name of Canton is "Guang3zhou1" (廣州) in Mandarin and "Guong-zeo" in Cantonese (pronunciation issues are dealt with below), and hence Cantonese is sometimes called "Guong-zeo-wa" ("Language of Canton") or "yue4 yu3" (粵語).
Cantonese is one of the major dialects of the Chinese language. It is mainly spoken in the south-eastern part of mainland China, Hongkong, Macao, parts of Taiwan, by Chinese minorities all over Southeast Asia and by many overseas Chinese worldwide.
Cantonese is spoken by about 100+ million people worldwide, less than for example Mandarin, but still a major language.
Linguistically, Cantonese is an older dialect than Mandarin. This can be seen, for example, by comparing the words for "I/me" (我) and "hunger" (餓). They are written using very similiar characters, but in Mandarin their pronunciation is quite different ("wo3" vs. "e4"), whereas in Cantonese they are pronounced identically except for the respective tones (ngo5 vs ngo6 respectively). Since the characters hint at a similiar pronunciation, it can be concluded that their ancient pronunciation was indeed similiar (as preserved in Cantonese), but in Mandarin the two syllables acquired different pronunciations in the course of time.
Cantonese sounds quite different from Mandarin, mainly because it has got a different set of syllables. The rules for syllable formation are a lot laxer than in Mandarin, for example there are syllables ending in non-nasal consonants (e.g. "lak"). It also provides a different set of tones. There are seven tones:
- a high level tone
- a high falling tone (this one is often pronounced identically to the first tone)
- a mid rising tone
- a mid level tone
- a low rising tone
- a low level tone
- a low falling tone
It is interesting to note that there are not actually more tone levels in Cantonese than in Mandarin (three - if you don't count the Cantonese low falling tone, which begins on the third level and needs somewhere to fall), only Cantonese has a more complete set of tone courses.
A main problem for the student of Cantonese is the lack of a widely accepted, standardized transcription system. The second problem are the Chinese characters: Cantonese uses the same system of character as Mandarin, but it often uses different words, which have to be written with different characters. At least this is the case in Hongkong, but in mainland China, Cantonese is written with the exact same characters as Mandarin, though the characters stand for words not actually used in Cantonese. An example may help to clarify this:
The word for "good" (好) is "hao3" in Mandarin and "hou2" in Cantonese. These are actually the same words only pronounced a little differently, as you would expect with dialects. Hence, it is clear that they're written identically (i.e. using the same Chinese character) by a Mandarin speaker, by a Cantonese speaker from mainland China and by a person from Hongkong.
The word for "to be" (是), on the other hand, is "shi4" in Mandarin and "hai6" (i.e. 6. tone) in Cantonese. This sounds quite different, and not only because of a dialectal shift! The Cantonese "hai6" is actually a different word (係), and it is known in Mandarin, too, though it is not pronounced "hai" there but "xi4". In literary language, it can still be used to mean "to be", though it is not used in colloquial Mandarin. Now in Hongkong, "hai6" is written using the same character a Beijing Chinese would use to write "xi4", as it should be. But for the sake of conformity, Cantonese speakers in mainland China have to write this same word "hai6" using the character a Beijing Chinese would use to write "shi4", so that people from Canton as well as from Beijing can read and immediately understand it (to understand a Hongkong newspaper, a Mandarin speaker would perhaps have to reconsider a bit). This is not only etymologically incorrect, it sometimes also has much more drastic impacts than in the "hai6" - "shi4" example.
Cantonese tends to preserve more variations of sound while Mandarin merged many of them. For example, the characters, (藝,憶,懿,邑,譯,佚) all pronounced as yi4 in Mandarin, but all different in Cantonese, they are pronounced as ngai6, yik1, yi3, yap1, yik6, yat6 respectively.
There is another very obvious difference between Cantonese and Mandarin. Mandarin lacks the ending sound of "m" such as "taam6" (譚) becomes tan2, "yim4" (鹽) becomes yan2, "tim1" (添) becomes tian1, "ham4" (含) becomes han2 etc. in Mandarin. The examples are too numerous to list.
- Cantonese Talking Syllabary: in Chinese; require Big5 font.